Servant leadership: Development of a multidimensional measure and multi-level assessment

Liden, Robert C., Wayne, Sandy J., Zhao, Hao and Henderson, David (2008). Servant leadership: Development of a multidimensional measure and multi-level assessment. The Leadership quarterly, Vol. 19, pp. 161-177.

Introduction

With confidence shaken in business leadership, interest has been increasing in the development of leaders who set aside self-interest for the betterment of their followers and organizations (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005; George, 2003).

Although dysfunctional behaviors of individuals are still of research interest, much remains to be learned about humans’ capacity to engage in positive behaviors (Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003).

Leaders can play a critical role in helping employees to realize their potential (Liden, Wayne, & Sparrowe, 2000).

With knowledge of each follower’s unique characteristics and interests, leaders then assist followers in achieving their potential.

This encouragement is done through building self-confidence (Lord, Brown, & Freiberg, 1999), serving as a role model, inspiring trust, and providing information, feedback, and resources.

Servant leadership differs from traditional approaches to leadership in that it stresses personal integrity and focuses on forming strong long-term relationships with employees.

Leadership research over the past few decades has suggested that the relationships employees develop with their leaders are critical for understanding the way in which employees can fulfill their potential and become self-motivated (Manz & Sims, 1987).

Servant leadership dimensions

Servant leaders, by definition, place the needs of their subordinates before their own needs and center their efforts on helping subordinates grow to reach their maximum potential and achieve optimal organizational and career success (Greenleaf, 1977).

Their motivation in accomplishing these tasks is not self-interest; rather, servant leaders “want their subordinates to improve for their own good, and view the development of  followers as an end, in and of itself, not merely a means to reach the leader’s or organization’s goals” (Ehrhart, 2004, p. 69).

Hypothesis 1. Servant leadership, as a construct, consists of distinguishable dimensions that define its domain.

Servant leadership, transformational leadership, and leader–member exchange: individual level

At first view, it appears that the servant leadership construct overlaps with other leadership styles, particularly transformational leadership (Bass, 1985).

Transformational leadership consists of four distinct components: idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration.

Servant leadership resembles idealized influence and intellectual stimulation in transformational leadership. That is, servant leaders set an example for followers to emulate, inspire followers with enthusiasm and inspiration, and actively encourage followers to challenge the status quo and express divergent views.

“socially oriented transformational leader” who engages in “moral uplifting of followers” (Bass, 1997, p. 131)

as noted by Graham (1991), servant leadership remains distinct fromtransformational
leadership in two ways: Servant leaders are sensitive to the needs of numerous  stakeholders, including the larger society, and servant leadership encourages followers to engage in moral reasoning.

Servant leadership behaviors contribute to the development and maintenance of strong interpersonal relationships between leaders and followers and are instrumental in helping employees attain their fullest potential and become selfmotivated (Manz & Sims, 1987).

The LMX perspective is unique among leadership theories in that it focuses on dyadic relationships between leaders and followers (Dansereau, Graen, & Haga, 1975)

Because of these conceptual differences between servant leadership, transformational leadership, and LMX, we expect that individual-level servant leadership (followers’ perceptions of superiors’ servant leadership behaviors) can explain the variance in outcomes beyond that which is explained by transformational leadership and LMX.

Hypothesis 2. At the individual level, servant leadership is positively related to employees’ community citizenship behaviors, in-role performance, and organizational commitment,  when controlling for transformational leadership and LMX.

Servant leadership: group-level

Examining servant leadership at the group-level as well as at the individual level is consistent with the argument that scientific benefits may be reaped from exploring different levels in theory development and research design (Kozlowski & Klein, 2000).

In the current investigation, we explored the possibility that across all of their followers, leaders differ in the extent to which they engage in servant leadership behaviors.

To the extent that followers do focus on social bonds with others, they will respond more positively in terms of attitudes and behaviors when they sense that others are treated fairly.

Conversely, if they feel that the leader is not engaging in servant leader behaviors with many other followers, focal individuals may be concerned about the possibility that in the future the leader will similarly not provide them with the benefits of servant leadership. Such expectations of future unfairness, or “anticipatory injustice,” may exert as much
influence on current attitudes and behaviors as actual unfair treatment (Shapiro &  Kirkman, 2001, p. 153).

Hypothesis 3. Servant leadership aggregated to the group-level is positively related to individual-level employee community citizenship behaviors, in-role performance, and organizational commitment.

Results

Together, the results of both the EFA and the CFA support a multidimensional conceptualization of the servant leadership construct, consistent with Hypothesis 1.

As anticipated, the seven servant leadership dimensions correlated moderately with one another. Additionally, all seven servant leadership dimensions correlated moderately to strongly with transformational leadership (.43 to .79) and LMX (.48 to .75).

These results suggest that the servant leadership dimensions are not redundant with transformational leadership or LMX.

Together, the results with respect to community citizenship behaviors, inrole performance, and organizational commitment provide support for Hypothesis 2.

Thus partial support was found for Hypothesis 3.

Discussion

Although transformational leadership, LMX, and servant leadership were correlated, the magnitude of correlations was not so high as to suggest that servant leadership is redundant with traditional leadership approaches.

The ability of servant leadership at the individual level to uniquely explain community citizenship, in-role performance, and organizational commitment distinguishes it from both transformational leadership and LMX.

Perhaps servant leaders are unique in the way they exhibit an active concern for the well-being of broader organizational constituencies and the community at large (Graham, 1991).

We have suggested that it is the process of interaction/exchange between the leader and the subordinate that is central to servant leadership theory.

Prior research has invoked social exchange theory (Blau, 1964) to explain how leadership affects employee commitment (Liden et al., 2000).

Because leaders are often perceived as the “face” or “personification of the organization” (Liden, Bauer, & Erdogan, 2004), subordinates may be motivated to respond in kind to their leader’s extra efforts by evincing increased commitment to the organization.

Servant leadership was also able to explain a significant amount of additional variance in supervisor-rated, subordinate in-role performance. The servant leadership dimension “behaving ethically” was most highly related to inrole performance. Leader ethical behavior and trust are constructs that have previously been linked in the leadership literature (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999). Thus it may be the case that servant leader behaviors (e.g., acting ethically) are moderated by trust when predicting performance-related outcomes.

Practical implications

Results of our study suggest that servant leadership may enhance both job performance and commitment to the organization.

In addition, our findings indicate that leaders may inspire followers to take an active role in serving the community in which the organization is embedded.

When many leaders in an organization embrace servant leadership, the organization may succeed in developing a culture of serving others, both within and outside the organization.

Indeed, results of the current investigation revealed a relationship between the servant leadership dimension “helping subordinates grow and succeed” and organizational commitment.

The relationship between the “behaving ethically” dimension of servant leadership and follower job performance identified by the current investigation also suggests that special
concern be shown for selecting leaders of integrity and solid ethics.

For example, to develop leaders who are able to uncover the full potential in each follower, emotional intelligence training may prove valuable (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002).

In developing such leaders, ethics training and training in employee empowerment may be useful (Spreitzer & Quinn, 2000).

Future research suggestions

Hackman & Oldham (1976), for example, discovered that some employees do not want challenge and responsibility in their jobs.

in informal conversations with participants in the current investigation, we discovered that some employees equate servant leadership with “micro-management.”

As strongly argued by some researchers, such as Schriesheim, Castro, & Yammarino (2000), leadership by definition involves both leaders and followers. Hence, studying leaders to the exclusion of followers (or vice versa) is not adequate. In their earlier work, these authors advocated that leadership research involve perceptions of both leaders and followers. In future research, servant leadership might therefore be investigated from the
perspectives of both leaders and followers.

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